Wednesday, September 14, 2005


My friend, David Britt, President of the United Way of Central Louisiana, sent me this letter he wrote to his community. It's too good not to share.

For Sunday, September 11

It’s been almost two weeks since the good people of New Orleans braced for Hurricane Katrina, a mere fortnight as they used to say in the city’s earlier days. But these two weeks will take on mythic proportions for the rest of our lives here in the central Gulf Coast states.

It’s going to take years to tell and to hear the stories that will come out of these weeks. I will listen with great interest when New Orleanians are ready to tell their stories. The quiet numbness, shock and grief I’ve read in many faces tell me there’s much more to come.

The stories I can tell so far are really the stories of countless other people. Local Cenla residents were calling our office constantly the day after the hurricane, itching to provide clothes or diapers or food to our new guests. They didn’t know where to take all those things, and at first we didn’t know either. Most of us don’t keep a warehouse around in case it might come in handy.

The local Red Cross chapter had the foresight to do exactly that, however. They had the Sally’s building lined up, though their handful of staff was consumed with providing emergency shelter to more than 6,500 people. United Way volunteers and donors were all dressed up with nowhere to go, so we struck a deal: the Red Cross provided the building, and United Way provided the volunteers.

On Tuesday New Orleans flooded and we realized that Cenla’s evacuees weren’t going home soon. On Thursday our volunteers cleaned up the Sally’s building, and on Friday the doors opened for business.

Looking back, it seems crazy. We had no staff to run a donation center. We had nothing to give out. But Friday morning the donations began to roll in, and they kept coming. The other need, volunteers to receive and sort the donations for distribution, arrived too. I’m not entirely sure how the word spread, but Lord, how it spread. We’re still counting the volunteer registrations to find out how many came to help.

We not only stockpiled donations, but we sent them out to shelters. We responded to the need for speed, and I can’t say exactly how many pounds of things we distributed. It felt as though we filled the warehouse at least once, emptied it, then filled it up again. But by Sunday the Red Cross shelters had received so many donated clothes, blankets, pillows, and other needed items that they told us they had no place for more. We provided truckloads and cars full of supplies to several churches providing shelter also. Cenla had done a good thing.

After Labor Day, most of our volunteers had to return to work, and we began to panic. Shelters we knew about were full, but donations kept coming. We needed to get the donations out to the people who needed them, whether they were in shelters or not. That’s when the Salvation Army stepped in. The day after Labor Day, the Salvation Army accepted our invitation to turn our donation center into a distribution center. The next morning at 9:00, they accepted their first customers. A wholesale warehouse transformed into a retail operation literally overnight.

Many of my stories this week are full of hope. My strongest image may always be a green beach bucket, brimming with coins collected by two young kids to help evacuees. A respected judge and a few attorneys spent days welcoming and directing donors who dropped off items for the suddenly homeless. A bank executive requested leave that was instantly granted so he could personally develop the donation center. Medical personnel at all levels showed up to help and were instantly put to work tending to the new arrivals in our community. An auditing firm closed its offices and sent its employees to volunteer at the center, sorting clothes and escorting evacuees through aisles brimming with contributed goods. A church canceled Wednesday prayer meeting so its members could sort clothing and linens to be ready for distribution the next day.

Many of my stories are rich with irony. I met a woman who, until Katrina, worked with the homeless in New Orleans. She was homeless now herself, walking through our Response Center with her mother and her scientist husband to pick up a few toiletries. They had lost everything and couldn’t access their bank accounts.

There are too many stories to repeat here. Naturally, there were frustrations. I learned the truth of Mark Twain’s aphorism: A lie travels halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes. But in the confusion, some excellent things happened, in part because organizations like the Red Cross and the Salvation Army were already in place, and in part because in a time of crisis untold numbers of Cenla citizens responded unbidden and found ways to help. Their stories are going to take a long time to tell, but I have to conclude with the most important message of all: thanks, everybody.
David T. Britt, President
United Way of Central Louisiana

www.uwcl.org

3 comments:

Hector said...

I know that God doesn't create these disasters, but sometimes I think that we need experiences like this and 9-11 to remind us of the things that matter the most. There's is so much transformation of the heart and increase of compassion! Sometimes we n eed pain to melt the fake castles and walls we create around us. Thanks for sharing!

Deacon Tim said...

Thank you, Hector. I do believe that this horrific tragedy will allow us to begin thinking about the least of Jesus little ones. Perhaps even we self-centered rich American Christians can repent?

Anonymous said...

Deacon Tim,

I happened across your very interesting take on Katrina by accident last weekend and I can not get your comments out of my head and my heart. You see, I have been working in an evacuee camp for about three weeks now. Almost all of the people in this camp are from the poorest areas of New Orleans. There is a difference of day and night between the lives that they lead (or maybe I should say "led") and the life that I lead. Our cultures are so different that at times we have trouble communicating even though we are supposedly both speaking English. Sometimes, I feel like when I enter this camp, I enter a different world. For example, a little girl followed me around until she got up the courage to ask if she could touch my long blonde hair. She had never seen anything like it before (exept on TV). Blonde-haired people are non-existant in her small world. I was amazed to find that some of the older people had never been beyond walking distance of the place they were born, not even catching a bus across town. What a scary experience to be plucked up and transported 500 miles away to a world that is so culturally and physically different. Although I absolutely love the hilly, forested rural church camp full of deer and squirrel, they feel uncomfortable and cut off from the urban sites and sounds they are more familiar with. And the monstor mounds of what I consider really good food served three times a day by the kind camp staff was just too much for them. More than once I was told, "I never had three meals a day before. Your kind of food is messing with my bowels."

But in spite of the differences of culture, I have learned so much from them. I have learned to love sinners. Yes, I mean love, not sympathize with their misfortune, or feel concern for their future, but love, the kind that sacrifices, the kind that weeps the kind that laughs at shared jokes. And yes, I mean sinners, too. I have led a sheltered life, I guess, because the sin I see in the lives of the people in this camp is above and beyond anything that I knew existed in the borders of our "Christianized" country. My heart is terribly, terribly conflicted. Now,I really do understand the idea of hating the sin and loving the sinner.

When I leave the camp and return to my judgemental, middle-class, suburban, and dare I say "white" world, I hear whispers around me in the grocery store and at the school and in the Sunday School class. In the midst of the hushed conversationss I hear phrases like, "those kind of people" and "God's judgement" and "that filth".

Don't get me wrong. The whisperers are good folks. They reached into their pockets and gave. The reached deep and gave big to those "poor people" because God wanted them to. But the people with whispered conversations do not know. They are ignorant. They do not see. They are blind. They can can not envision and conceive the GRACE and MERCY inside the camps. They say judgement. But I FEEL mercy. There is such a razor-thin line between the two and I really wonder if they are not the two faces of the proverbial coin.

I felt mercy when she came and asked me if I was representing the Lord and if I would tell her about Him. She was on drugs and in a lifestyle of sexual sin. She was hungry for Him. She is healing in His Word every day as I go and read it to her.

I felt mercy when he grasped my hand and smiled a snaggled toothed grin that must have lit up heaven. He just smiled all over. If he had been in the body of a dog, he would have been wagging his tail. He told me how for the first time in his life he had time to study the scriptures for 2-3 hours a day. Forget the fact that he owned nothing of material goods anymore. He owned the Lord. He was spending his time getting ready to go back to New Orleans and be a light.

I felt mercy, when with her wrinkled old hand, she stroked my face and hair and crooned over me with an intimacy that none has exhibited since my own dear grandmother died. When she boarded the bus to join her husband in another state, and we both cried. The tears were bitter, sweet. We know we'll meet again. Someday.

I felt mercy when her chubby little-girl hand braided my long blonde hair while I told her about a man who took a ride in the belly of a fish because he hated the people in another place who were very different from him. She understood about the worm. So did I.

You were right about that early worm.

Thanks for expressing the thoughts that I was thinking.